Sunday, March 28, 2021

Performance Anxiety

Anxiety is a two edged sword.  Can't perform without it, can't perform with too much of it.

Understanding how success impacts anxiety is an important part of the performance anxiety picture.  Where we set the bar for students is important as it provides them with what sort of performance constitutes success.

One measure of success is achievement - this is where a student is able to do something expected at a prescribed point in time.  A student that can write their name consistently is an achievement in pre-primary, but an area of concern if they were still trying to do this in Year 4.

Another measure of success is progress - this is where a student is able to do something later that they could not do at a previous point in time.  A student that could not tell the time in Year 6, but can do so in Year 7 is an indicator of progress.

A third measure of success is a normalised ranking.  With normalised ranking, a student doing better compared to their peers longitudinally over a period of time.  A student was 5th in the class for spelling in test 1 but was 1st in test 2 and consistently in the top 10 for the year.  Achievement is measured for each test, progress is monitored as they move up and down the class ranking.

Traditionally schools have used normalised ranking to give students feedback as to how they are progressing towards year level achievement standards.  This allows students to feel successful as they measure themselves against peers and do better or worse dependent on effort (something that they can control).  Whether a child is meeting the Year level achievement standard is irrelevant as long as they are making progress with their peers. 

Movement to a national achievement standard changed this to having an achievement focus, and as consequence a large group of students would now encounter constant failure with D/E grades.  In extreme circumstances, students would also face failing assessment after assessment being measured against grading standards that they had no ability to reach to support the awarding of D/E grades.

This focus on achievement rather than progress increased performance anxiety and is currently at epidemic levels in schools.  Success lowers performance anxiety and anxiousness caused by the fear of failure.  If students only face constant failure then anxiety will rise to unbearable levels preventing progress.  It needs an outlet for anxiety to be released.  This is where we are today and it will take academics to prove this true with the benefit of hindsight.  

Should we set student success to be:

- achievement of excellence (eg. through a focus on Year level Achievement Standards);
- progress (eg. improvement in a skills over time); or
- ranking (eg. position in a class of similar students).

Should we frame this within and understanding of:

- Constantly seeking excellence (with an understanding that the bar moves with the definition of developmental "excellence");
- Always doing your best (with an understanding that continuous effort is required); or
- Putting in the effort where required (with an understanding that you can only do what you can do and develop reserves where possible).


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